- The J&K rail project, linking Jammu with Kashmir Valley, halted in 2008, will restart
- Concerns over safety of Chenab bridge, highest in the world, stopped work
- The Banihal Pass Tunnel, longest in Indian rail, was considered for realignment
- The tunnel link to be completed in July. Official deadline for entire project is 2012. But it may take longer.
***The ambitious, 292-km Jammu and Kashmir Railway project is back on track. It was halted last year with concerns over the safety of the bridge over the Chenab river and trouble with the terrain, resulting in a rethink on alignment options. But the new projection of the railway ministry is that an essential element of the rail link between Jammu and Kashmir will be in place by this July, with the completion of the Banihal Pass Tunnel.
An internal committee set up last year by the ministry to look into the problems before the project and to discuss realignment options is to submit its report on May 31. But the feedback indicates it has given the green signal to the beleaguered project. "We have looked into all the concerns. There was a doubt about whether the bridge could withstand the pressure and altitude. These worries have been resolved and we are proceeding. No changes to the alignment have been made. Very minor changes have been introduced for the Chenab Bridge," Sree Prakash, member (traffic), railway ministry, told Outlook.
According to Prakash, 7 km of the 11-km Banihal Pass Tunnel through the Pir Panjal range is done. "By July this year, we'll do the tunnel. We'll finish the Udhampur-to-Katra stretch by 2011. From Katra to Banihal is another 120 km, which will take us 5-6 years more after that." The 11 km tunnel from Banihal, which falls in the Jammu region, to Lower Munda in the Kashmir Valley is being constructed using the New Austrian Tunnelling method, at an estimated cost of Rs 2,400 crore.
The J&K railway project, taken up at a cost of Rs 11,000 crore, comprises three sections: Udhampur-Katra, Katra-Qazigund and Qazigund-Baramulla. Northern Railways is laying the 25-km Udhampur-Katra stretch and Konkan Railways is constructing the 148-km Katra-Qazigund stretch, which includes the Chenab bridge and the Banihal Pass Tunnel—the longest in the Indian rail network. Construction company IRCON is in charge of the 119 km from Qazigund to Baramulla, of which only the last Qazigund-Anantnag stretch remains.
The Katra-Qazigund section is said to be the toughest project undertaken by the railways. Tunnels and bridges abound on the stretch through punishing terrain. The Chenab bridge is 1.3 km long and has the third largest arch span in the world. At 1,178 feet, it will be the highest bridge in the world once completed.
The project, regarded as one of the most formidable in the world in terms of execution as it deals with earthquake-prone, conflict-mired terrain and other geological difficulties, ground to a halt when mid-way through the construction of the Chenab bridge doubts arose about whether the structure would hold. The project, under construction since 1994, was given the status of a national project in 2002 under the Vajpayee government. The initial deadline was for 2009. Various delays pushed it to 2012.
However, some officials say the deadline could be pushed further. "With a new minister in Mamata Banerjee, the project will have to be presented to her and then taken forward," says a senior rail ministry official. There is also talk of building a rail link to Ladakh. While no detailed project report has been submitted, the idea is being pitched as a project for the new government.